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Remembering John Wayne

God, what a man he was, the first time I met him, striding out of the hot Georgia sun, 6 feet 4, weighed down with battle gear, a pistol on his hip, a leathered face under the steel helmet. He stuck out a hand and there was this big, friendly smile on his face, and he said, "John Wayne."

I took it as a name. It was not a name. It was a statement. The man who died Monday spent 72 years and more than 200 movies making it into a statement and he did his job well.

John Wayne. He was asked one time what his contribution to American movies was, and he said, "Vitality." He had that in such abundance that he brought life to his bad movies and greatness to his good ones. He stood in a doorway once, in a movie called "The Searchers," and he rested his weight on one foot and put his right hand on his left arm and looked out into the desert, and brought such a poignancy to that physical movement that the French film critics stood up and cheered.

Not that he read the French critics. He was a totally untheoretical actor. He never studied his craft. He became good at it because he went out into Monument Valley a great many times with a man named John Ford, and they made some of the greatest American movies of all time without giving it much more thought than the whisky and the poker games and the campfires with which they occupied their evenings.

Those were Wayne's great days, when the man he called "Pappy" camped out in the desert, far from Hollywood and its agents and its studios, and made what they used to call cowboy pictures. To record the bare fact is incredible, but here it is: John Wayne had already made 62 motion pictures before he became famous as the Ringo Kid in Ford's "Stagecoach," in 1939. He was 32 at the time, more than a decade of knockabout acting after Ford discovered him on the football team at USC. It's almost as if those years and those Westerns shaped John Wayne. He never quite became a movie star; he went directly from being a movie cowboy to being an American legend, and he wore his status lightly.

That first time I met him was down at Fort Benning, where he was filming "The Green Berets," and he was the first movie star I'd ever interviewed. He was also, and always would be, the easiest to interview, because he had this way of cutting right through all the b.s. and getting down to the important things, like would anyone like another shot of tequila, or would anyone like to play a game of chess, or did anyone see what that damn fool Hubert Humphrey said the other day.

He was a man whose convictions came laced with humor. On the eve of his Academy Award for "True Grit" (1969), I interviewed him in his beloved house out at Newport Beach in California. It was up on a hill overlooking the water and the minesweeper he'd made into his yacht. We sat in his den, with the big Civil War field general's desk at one end, and the walls covered with autographed photographs and his collection of rifles. After I'd looked at the autographs of Richard Nixon and Ike and Herbert Hoover, he poured out glasses of tequila and suggested I visit the rest of his collection in the john. That's where he'd hung Humphrey.

"This gun here," he said, taking one down from the wall, "is what the Commies are using to kill our boys over in Nam. And this one . . ." he took it down with a certain tenderness " . . . is the one I used in 'Stagecoach.' I'd use it like this . . ." He tried to swing it one-handed up under his arm. He grimaced. "Christ!" he said. "That hurt!" He put the gun back on the wall. "Twisted my arm falling off of a horse last month down in Louisiana," he said, "and the god-damned thing hasn't felt right since."

Wayne was, of course, a lifelong conservative Republican. One time in 1973, though, down in Durango, Mexico, he explained that he was, in fact, a liberal. "Hell yes, I'm a liberal," he said. "I listen to both sides before I make up my mind. Doesn't that make you a liberal? Not in today's terms, it doesn't. These days, you have to be a f----- left-wing radical to be a liberal. Politically, though . . . I've mellowed."

There was a pause. Wayne, slouched behind a chess board in his old stitched leather director's chair, looked around at his listeners: wranglers, rough-hewn extras, old cronies and drinking buddies, a couple of Mexican stunt men, none of whom seemed even slightly interested in questions of philosophy. He roared with laughter, looking down at the chessboard. "Goddamn!" he said. "I've lost!" He studied the position bitterly. "If I wasn't always talking politics all the time, I could keep my mind on this game."

The jokes and the chess, the horses and the tequila - he swore he hadn't had a hangover since he switched from whisky - were part of the image. So was his legendary physical stature. Is there a person alive who doesn't know he licked "The Big C"? And that he played a scene in ice-cold water, up in the mountains of the Sierra Madre, six months afterward? He quit the cigarettes for years, and then started up with little cigars because, hell, a man had to smoke something. Until the end of his days, he was a remarkable presence of a man.

And on screen he held so much authority so that he was not even being ironic when he explained his theory of acting: "Don't act. React." John Wayne, you see, could react. Others actors had to strain the limits of their craft to hold the screen with him. There is this test for an actor who, for a moment, is just standing there in a scene: Does he seem to be just standing? Or does he, as John Wayne always did, appear to be deciding when, and why, and how to take the situation under his control?

He was in dozens of good movies. "The Long Voyage Home" and "Red River" and "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" and "The Quiet Man" and "The Searchers" and "Rio Bravo" and "True Grit," in which he gathered the reins of his horse in his mouth and took a pistol in one hand and a rifle in the other and charged across a clearing into the face of death and, of course, wiped out the bad guys while audiences cheered - yes, cheered, because this scene was so completely the essence of John Wayne.

He won the Academy Award for that one.

He made a few more. His last picture was called "The Shootist," in 1976. He played an old gunfighter who had fought and shot and ridden his way through the West for a lifetime, and had finally come to a small town and was filled with the fear of dying. He went to the doctor, played of course by James Stewart, and learned that he had weeks to live, and then he conducted himself during those days with strength and dignity. If they play a movie on the Late Show in tribute to John Wayne, "The Shootist" would make a good one.

But there was one other movie he wanted to make, and never made, that he talked about once. It didn't have a title and it didn't need a title, not in Wayne's mind. It would just have been, quite simply, one last movie directed by John Ford, who died in 1973 with Wayne at the bedside.

"God, that was a loss to me when Pappy died," Wayne said slowly one day in 1976. It was a day for remembering the dead and the dying; he'd come to Chicago to visit the bedside of his old friend Stepin Fetchit. He poured himself another tequila, and repeated his axiom that tequila did not give you a hangover, and thoughtfully added the observation that it did hurt, though, when you drank enough of it and fell over and hit your head.

"Up until the very last years of his life," Wayne then said, softly, "Pappy could have directed another picture, and a damned good one. But they said Pappy was too old. Hell, he was never too old. In Hollywood these days, they don't stand behind a fella. They'd rather make a goddamned legend out of him and be done with him."

John Wayne then sat silent and nobody else breathed a word, because who among us was so brave as to say, well, they'll never be done with John Wayne, because he made the goddamned legend out of himself.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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